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Worried about virus outbreak, First Nations schools opt for online schooling

As Indigenous communities take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, at least one First Nations independent school on the Island is opting for online instruction this fall. The W SÁNEĆ school board said when school starts Sept.

As Indigenous communities take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, at least one First Nations independent school on the Island is opting for online instruction this fall.

The WSÁNEĆ school board said when school starts Sept. 10, all students will be learning remotely, with one to two days a week of outdoor education for secondary students and adult learners.

The school board operates three schools: The LAU’WELNEW Tribal School, which serves about 200 students between kindergarten and Grade 6, the WSÁNEĆ Leadership Secondary School, with about 100 students from Grade 7 to 12, and the Saanich Adult Education Centre, which has about 60 adult learners.

The schools serve children from the Tsartlip, Tseycum, Pauquachin and Tsawout First Nations on the Saanich Peninsula.

Curtis Olsen, who has been the school board’s administrator for 19 years, said with COVID-19 cases on the rise, board members decided it would not be safe to resume in-person classes.

“The board was a bit concerned that maybe it’s not the right time to go back to the classrooms,” he said. “If someone happened to be infected in our community, it could spread like wildfire.” Olsen said often several generations live in one home in the community.

Chromebooks were offered to students who did not have a laptop. Teaching assistants are visiting students’ homes to prepare them for online learning, which is how students finished the school year in the spring.

Some families don’t have Wi-Fi at home, Olsen said. To improve connectivity, several cell towers were installed across the four First Nations at a cost of $80,000, with assistance from a federal government fund.

Teachers and school board staff will also check in with students and families to make sure their mental health isn’t suffering from the lack of socialization with peers, Olsen said.

The school board will monitor COVID-19 case numbers throughout the fall and decide when to resume in-person classes.

Adam Olsen, interim Green party leader and MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, said his daughter, Ella, is going into Grade 3 at the LAU’WELNEW Tribal School and his son, Silas, is going into Grade 8 at Bayside Middle School in Brentwood Bay. When both kids were learning online in the spring, he could see the difference between the one-on-one attention Ella was getting in a class with 12 students compared with Silas in a class of 29, he said.

The MLA, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation and Curtis Olsen’s nephew, said all First Nation schools are likely weighing whether in-person or online classes are safest and logistically feasible.

“The more remote you are, there is a higher likelihood you’re able to have in-class community schooling,” Adam Olsen said. “In more urban areas, we’ve seen communities have a pretty high level of shutdown. They’re much more concerned of what COVID spreading through their community could do … so maybe they decide to stay in the online environment.”

Last week, the federal government announced $112 million to help on-reserve First Nation schools with reopening plans.

That was in addition to the $2 billion in federal funding to help provinces and territories prepare for a safe return of students to classes this fall.

James Delorme, board member with the First Nations Education Foundation, said he’s hearing from many Indigenous communities.

“Those community members are quite concerned, not just for the kids’ health and possibly getting COVID, but also bringing that transmission into the community,” said Delorme, a former chief of the Klahoose First Nation on Cortes Island.

Delorme said online education can be more difficult in remote communities where internet connection is patchy and unreliable.

Delorme said children who attend First Nation independent schools receive not only the core subjects, but valuable lessons about their history and cultural practices.

“Those are things you have to do in person,” he said. “A lot of times they’re orally taught.”

The federal NDP says the $112 million shared by all of Canada’s on-reserve schools, is inadequate.

“On-reserve schools are already facing massive underfunding compared with provincial schools,” NDP Indigenous youth critic Charlie Angus said in a statement. “When you add on the isolation, the high costs faced by communities and the chronic lack of resources, this announcement shows the government isn’t taking their legal responsibilities to deliver safe and effective education.”

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